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Course Credit Recovered

What an Iowa district discovered about using student tutors to reach lagging students in a summer program


Lora Wolff
Lora Wolff (center) develops plans for this summer's credit-recovery program in Keokuk, Iowa, along with David Wendt, director of student services, and Chelsea Kies, a tutor.

Wanted: Students for four weeks of summer credit recovery. Benefits: Won’t have to repeat classes; will gain self-confidence; will receive one-on-one academic help.

Driven by federal and state requirements to reduce failure rates and dropouts, increase graduation numbers and re-engage students, more and more schools are using various forms of credit recovery.

In this age of tweeting, blogging and online learning, it may seem old school to advocate for a traditional face-to-face summer school credit-recovery program, yet that’s exactly what the Keokuk, Iowa, schools are doing. The district’s high school credit-recovery program, which we call Success Center, begins immediately after the regular school year and runs approximately 20 days, four hours each morning. We wrap up by the Fourth of July. The Success Center is provided at no cost to students and their families.

In a typical summer program, between 50 and 75 students attend. Last summer, we had 58 participants who earned 125 credits. Thirty-nine students earned one credit, while two students earned five credits each. Other students earned between two and four credits.

Optimal Candidates
Having seven years of summer credit-recovery experience, we’ve learned a few lessons.

Lesson 1: Help those in viable positions. Although we want to help all students, you should determine which students can best be served by a summer credit-recovery program. Our program focuses on students who have failed courses and is not designed to address the needs of those who want to accelerate their credit acquisition. In Keokuk, we asked how could we recover the greatest number of credits. The answers led us to narrow our focus.

Students who earn F’s as final course grades with extremely low percentages (0-40 percent) may be better served by repeating entire courses. These students have too big a hill to climb for our program.

On occasion, we have had students with low percentages participate. Usually, these students became frustrated with the volume of work that remains, leading to a failed recovery effort.

For some students, online credit recovery during the regular school year may be a better alternative. The self-paced nature of online learning is a good match. Furthermore, some students do not want or need a lot of interaction. Others are capable of working independently, and they attack the online course work with a vengeance.

The academic needs of students with severe behavioral problems or special needs should be considered, as credit recovery may not be a viable option. We have had students with individualized education plans participate. To meet their needs, we assigned a teacher with special education certification to assist these students. However, the independent and individualized learning structure of our program doesn’t work for all.

Lesson 2: Use student tutors to supplement the professional staff. Although the program relies on certified teachers in the core content areas, we also use student tutors, who are recent high school graduates (ideally those majoring in education), to assist. This is a win-win situation. The credit-recovery participants can learn from their peers while the tutors gain instructional experience.

The tutors often can push the students harder than the regular teachers without meeting as much resistance. Not only do our tutors work with students on academics, they also counsel students about the importance of staying on task and getting a diploma. The tutors deliver the same messages as the teachers, but how the students receive the messages is much different.

The primary goal is for students to recover academic credits, so summer programs need great teachers more than they need content-area specialists. Great teachers can facilitate learning in content areas in which they may not be experts.

Promotional ads soliciting teachers and tutors for summer credit-recovery programs could be worded this way: “Wanted: Tutors and certified teachers who care deeply about student achievement. Willing to do whatever it takes to ensure student success. Positive. Encouraging. Possessing a relentless desire to help students learn.”

Lesson 3: Motivate the unmotivated and unsuccessful. Motivation is an issue for the students who land in summer school. If it weren’t a problem, most of the students would not have failed during the school year. So a major focus is to fire up the students.

Just getting students to show up is the first major hurdle. Attendance requires buy-in to the idea that completing course credits and graduation requirements is worthwhile and attainable. We talk one-on-one with students about the benefits of staying on track for graduation and why that is so important to their future.

To encourage attendance, we contact parents and grandparents. We mail letters. We send e-mails. We make individual phone calls. We use our automated messaging system to call all eligible attendees.

In some cases, we’ve taken more drastic steps. We’ve dropped off assignments at homes when students didn’t show up for class. We’ve gone to students’ homes and picked them up. Once we even sent the school resource officer in a police car to pick up a chronically absent student.

Even these steps are not always successful. One parent we contacted said, “I can’t get my daughter to attend.” We suggested the parent take away the cell phone until the student attends and makes up the credit. The response? “Sarah will be mad at me.” We’ve learned you just can’t win some fights.

Furthermore, the legacy of failure has to be overcome. When students fail a course, they begin to believe they cannot succeed, so why bother. They fail one course, then another. Our program attempts to change that mind-set to passing one course, then another and another.

As students complete a course, we make a big deal out of it. We high-five. We graph the courses completed on the whiteboard. We print out new transcripts to send home. And we start them on their next course immediately.

The axiom “Success breeds success” is true when it comes to credit recovery. Once on board with the program, students request work to take home, and they have asked the staff to stay late for extra help. Sometimes they’re waiting at the classroom door in the morning to get a jump on the work.

Lesson 4: Get students into the program as freshmen for maximum benefit. Research indicates students who fail core academic courses during the first year of high school have a substantially lower probability of graduating than students who stay on track. Our freshmen fail more courses than upper-level students, so it is critical to reach students before they start sophomore year.

Why do freshmen struggle? Because of the academic, social and behavioral demands that are placed on freshmen who have yet to mature and accept responsibility. Indicators of potential trouble show up in attendance rates, grade point averages, total credits earned and the number of F’s on a report card. These indicators must be reviewed systematically, and interventions (of which credit recovery is but one option) must be put in place for these failing students before their second year of high school.

Before we started a summer credit-recovery program, our school district’s graduation rate was 68 percent. Owing to the credit-recovery opportunity, it has risen to 88 percent. But more importantly, students do not suffer the consequences of not having a diploma — the inability to find employment or secure further training.

Lesson 5: Build positive relationships during summer credit recovery. Successful face-to-face credit-recovery programs build strong relationships between students and teachers through greater individualization, according to Elaine Allensworth and John Easton in their article “The On-Track Indicator as a Predictor of High School Graduation” published by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. Those findings were echoed by Kevin Oliver and his colleagues in a 2009 evaluation of online courses in the Quarterly Review of Distance Education. They found 60 percent of failing students said they would like “more direction and communication from the teacher.” That’s one of the reasons we use a face-to-face approach in summer rather than online course options.

Although the primary purpose of the program is to earn credit, an important, secondary purpose is to build relationships. That is also why we use student tutors.

Socioeconomic status factors in to relationship building. Our high school’s free/reduced-price lunch population is 58 percent, yet of those enrolled in summer credit recovery, 82 percent qualify under the federal school lunch standard.

To strengthen our connections, we employ an elementary school teacher from one of our high-poverty schools who developed positive relationships with these students when they were younger. No one wants to disappoint his or her 3rd-grade teacher. This teacher-student linkage produces positive results.

We’re certainly not alone in promoting student-teacher relationships. In the Boston Public Schools, the re-engagement center uses this motto: “We care too much to let you go.” That concept reflects our belief about credit recovery: We care too much to let you fail.

Reversing Failure
Keokuk’s credit-recovery program does not reach every student it should. Each year, only about half of those eligible attend. The last thing most unmotivated, failing students want to do is go to school in the summer. We need to do better. For nonattendees, we must find alternatives, such as summer online courses, along with credit-recovery options during the school year.

For participating students, the benefits go well beyond credits earned. One of our recent summer school students, we’ll call him Billy, was classified as homeless. Yet he attended summer school every day and completed five credits, enabling him to stay on track to graduate. He found a place where people cared about him. His previous course failures and homelessness didn’t matter. Billy returned to school during the fall and was passing his courses.

During the past seven summers, while I served as the district’s assistant superintendent and superintendent, I joined the teachers, tutors and students for credit recovery. I set aside typical superintendent duties — budgets, facility renovations and personnel issues — to spend time with high school students. And not just any high school students — students who had failed but had hopes of recovery.

It’s not a typical way for a superintendent to spend June mornings, but doing so reminded me of the struggles of teachers and students. Helping with summer school also allowed me to deepen relationships with teachers and build relationships with students. It was not unusual for one of the summer school students to see me in the hallway the following fall and shout out, “I’m doing my assignments. You don’t have to worry about me.”

These students have learned important lessons about how to be successful. They’ve also discovered educators in their lives who care too much to let them fail.

Lora Wolff, former superintendent in Keokuk, Iowa, is assistant professor of educational leadership at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Ill. E-mail: LL-Wolff@wiu.edu. David Wendt, director of student services at Keokuk High School, contributed to this article.


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